Aug 09 2016
These mauve-brown flowers aren’t big and showy but they have a place in American history.
American groundnut (Apios americana) is a perennial vine in eastern North America with tuberous roots that are good to eat. Many Native American tribes cultivated the plant, dug the roots and ate them like potatoes. The Lenape people called them “hobbenis” or hopniss.
When Europeans arrived in North America they knew nothing of the plant but learned quickly from the natives to avoid starvation. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims where to find it and how to cook it. It was probably on the menu at the first Thanksgiving.
Here’s what a freshly dug harvest looks like:
Europeans took hopniss back to the Old World and tried raising it as a crop, but the projects were soon abandoned because Apios americana doesn’t grow well in monocultures and it isn’t large enough to harvest until it’s two to three years old.
More recently the wild foods community has rediscovered hopniss but its desire to grow with other plants — and engulf them — is frustrating to tidy gardeners.
This month is a good time to see American groundnut in the wild.
It’s blooming now in western Pennsylvania.
Note: If you decide to forage for this plant get permission from the landowner before you begin. This goes for public lands too. For instance, it is illegal to take flowers, plants and animals from Pittsburgh City parks and Allegheny County parks.
(flower photo by Kate St. John. Remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.)